The Early Teachings of Shinzen Young: Nirvana as the Un-Driven Life

One of the most startling insights from meditation is seeing how driven I am. Much of my behavior is an unconscious attempt to chase pleasure and escape discomfort.

A prime example has been my relationship to food. 

I’ve spent most of my life eating for pleasure — not for nutrition. I’ve raced through thousands of meals, rarely stopping to savor the taste of one morsel of food before shoveling the next one into my mouth.  

I ate like an automaton — the way a machine would eat if it could consume food. I was being driven like car, with cravings behind the wheel.  

During meditation retreats with Shinzen Young, I learned about mindful eating — a spiritual practice all its own. Shinzen reminded us to slow down and savor every bite, greeting the sensations of eating with concentration, clarity, and equanimity.  

This transformed my experience of food. A new world of aromas and flavors opened up to me. I discovered that one morsel can explode into deeply fulfilling sensations that ripple throughout my body. And I can eat less overall while still feeling satisfied. 

Practicing with driven-ness

According to Shinzen, behavior changes such as this follow from responding to pleasure with less craving.

We can also practice an un-driven response to discomfort. Shinzen described stages in this process:

  1. Feeling totally drivenI have to end this discomfort right now.
  2. Beginning awarenessI feel this discomfort as sensations at specific points in the body and specific thoughts about them.
  3. Expanded awarenessI am open to watching these sensations and thoughts with precision and equanimity.
  4. Insight and purificationI see now that these sensations and thoughts are nothing but fluid, flowing, impermanent energy. They simply arise and pass. They do not limit or define me.

Skilled meditators can experience awareness, insight, and purification even during extreme pain. If you can remain present to such discomfort, Shinzen said, you can plunge into the Witness Self — the alert and dispassionate observer of whatever arises in the body-mind.

Melting into heat

I experienced the above stages during one particularly challenging meditation retreat led by Shinzen. It took place during mid-July in a building with no air conditioning.

There I was, perched on my meditation cushion in that scorching room. Sweat streamed from my body into drops on the floor. My shirt and shorts were soaked.

I remember some thoughts that passed through my mind during that fiery sitting:

This is unbearable. I cannot endure this. I simply must end this. I have to stand up and walk out of this room. NOW.

But at that moment I remembered something that Shinzen said a few minutes earlier: “See if you can hang out with any strong sensation for just one more mindful breath.”

So I did —  for several more breaths, actually.

And then, suddenly, I was free of suffering.

The heat was so intense that I simply saw the futility of resisting it. The resistance, in fact, dropped away on its own.

The crushing weight of heat and sweat changed from solid walls of discomfort into shimmering sensations that pulsed through my body without interference — like streams of a river flowing effortlessly into an ocean.

Tasting a drop of sweat that flowed from my forehead to my lips, I smiled. In that moment I saw what is like to flourish in difficult circumstances rather than avoid or endure them. 

It was a glimpse of nirvana, the un-driven life.